Thursday, September 22, 2016

North Dakota State's win over Iowa isn't a huge upset

My post listing the top ten upsets in college football history* is now almost a decade old, and I'll probably be updating it at some point in the future. After last Saturday, the question could be asked: where would North Dakota State's 23-21 win at #13 Iowa be included on any new list of all-time college football upsets? After all, an FCS school beat a ranked FBS school - from the Big Ten, no less! - on the road, which is pretty remarkable; it's not that much different than Appalachian State's stunning 2007 win over #5 Michigan that tops my current list.

The answer: it won't. It wasn't a huge upset, and is certainly not among the greatest upsets in college football history. Anybody with any knowledge of North Dakota State's program could have reasonably expected this outcome to occur.

The NDSU Bison are an FCS powerhouse. The program has won five (!) FCS championships in a row. From the beginning of the 2011 season going into Saturday's game, the Bison were 73-5. During that time they've defeated FBS schools Kansas State, Iowa State, Colorado State and Minnesota.

As I wrote in my 2007 post, what I consider to be the "biggest upsets" in college football are those
...which occur when one program is so thoroughly outclassed and so overwhelmingly outmatched by another in terms of stature, resources, and/or athletic potential that it shouldn't have a snowball's chance in Hades of winning, yet actually pulls it off.
This simply does not apply to North Dakota State. They might nominally be an FCS program, but they are so talented and well-coached that they could beat just about any FBS program; "outclassed" and "outmatched" they most certainly are not. As USA Today's Dan Wolken notes, NDSU's defeat of Iowa doesn't seem like an upset because "it’s just what North Dakota State does."

On a related note, FCS upsets of ranked FBS teams, while still a rarity, are no longer unheard of. Since Appalachian State's upset of Michigan in 2007, we've seen James Madison knock off #13 Virginia Tech 21-16 in 2010 and Eastern Washington beat #25 Oregon State 49-45 in 2013. (And don't even get me started on FCS victories over unranked FBS teams, which happen pretty frequently: there were three of them - all against teams from so-called "Power Five" conferences - on the first Saturday of this season alone.)

FCS victories over FBS programs are noteworthy, due to the advantages the FBS schools typically have over FCS schools in terms of fan support, facilities and scholarships. But they do happen, because Any Given Saturday. Moreover, North Dakota State is not a typical FCS program. They are as dominant a program as there is in any level of college football right now, and their victory over the Iowa Hawkeyes, while admirable, is simply not extraordinary.

See here and here for my previous thoughts on the subject of FCS teams defeating FBS schools.

(*Since I wrote my post in 2007, other top ten college football upset lists have been created. Check out these slideshows from bleacherreport.com and fansided.com.)

The summer 2015 Eastern Caribbean Adventure

A little over a year ago, my parents, Kirby and myself took a trip to Puerto Rico and a handful of island nations in the Eastern Caribbean. After I returned, I began writing the following entry, but never completed it, and essentially forgot all about it. A few weeks ago, when I started thinking about writing about my summer 2016 trip to Europe, I realized that I never posted anything about my previous summer's adventure.

I thought about finishing this entry and postdating it to last summer as a retroblog. I also thought about just hitting the "delete" button and forgetting all about it. In the end, I decided to just finish it and post it today, because even though the trip is over a year old at this point, it was still a lot of fun and is definitely worth sharing. Besides, here's nothing here that's particularly dated: the things we visited and the sights we saw are all still there.

The trip consisted of a week on Royal Caribbean's Adventure of the Seas (which sails to the Leeward Islands out of San Juan), followed by a week at a timeshare in the Isla Verde area of San Juan, Puerto Rico. We got there via United's nonstop service from IAH to San Juan.

The Adventure of the Seas is part of Royal Caribbean's Voyager Class of vessels, and was the largest cruise ship in the world when it* was launched in 2001. Even though I know there are now bigger and better cruise ships out there, I was still pretty impressed by it (this was only the second time in my life that I had ever been on a cruise, and the previous cruise had been aboard a ship that was much older and smaller).

The Royal Promenade down the center of the ship contains stores, bars and restaurants. The food and service aboard the ship were top-notch, and drinks, while pricey, were not outrageously expensive. On-board wifi, on the other hand, was ridiculously costly. We took advantage of free wifi at restaurants and bars in our ports of call.


The four of us opted for "official" royal Caribbean Shore excursions at each port. Some travelers prefer not to use in-house shore excursions because of cost or inflexibility, but we had no complaints with any of ours.

Our first port of call was Philipsburg, on the Dutch-administered south side of the island of Saint Martin (the north side of the island is administered by France). One of St. Maarten's better known attractions is Maho Beach, located directly at the end of the runway for Princess Juliana Airport. Our tour boat anchored right off the beach, so we could snorkel, drink and relax when we weren't watching the planes pass next to us. The Delta flight in the picture above was coming in from JFK.

Here's a video I took of a KLM 747 from Amsterdam on final approach. Pretty impressive. If you go to St. Maarten, I highly recommend our operator, Airport Adventure SXM. They were very friendly and helpful.

As I noted in my original list of countries I've visited, I've now been to three out of the four "constituent countries" of the Netherlands. (You're next, Curaçao!)

Unfortunately, we did not have time to visit the French side of the island. Maybe next time...

Our second port of call was St. Kitts and Nevis, which is the smallest independent nation in North America. Here, we rode the St. Kitts Scenic Railway, which is a tourist train operating on a rail line that used to be used for transporting sugar cane.

The scenery from the train is very picturesque, and it didn't hurt that they provided us with plenty of rum punch and traditional snacks during our journey. This is the only active railway in the West Indies.

This is the remnant of an old sugar cane refinery on St. Kitts. The cone-shaped building on the left was a windmill and the smokestack is on the right. The island of St. Kitts is dotted with these ruins. However, sugar production is no longer a profitable industry for St. Kitts, and the economy is being diversified into other sectors such as tourism.

Of all the islands we visited during our cruise, St. Kitts appeared to be the least developed. This isn't necessarily a bad thing; there's something to be said for a country that doesn't have a single traffic light!

Our third stop was Antigua, the larger of the two islands that comprise the nation of Antigua and Barbuda. We took a bus tour of the island and stopped at many scenic overlooks, including this vista of English Harbour from Shirley Heights.

My father surveys some of the buildings at Nelson's Dockyard, which was named after Lord Horatio Nelson (the hero of the Battle of Trafalgar). This was a key Caribbean base for the British Royal Navy during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. It keeps its British charm to this day, right down to the red phone booth in the background.

Our fourth port of call was the beautiful and lush volcanic island of St. Lucia. This is a view of Marigot Bay, which is just south of the island's capital city of Castries. The island was the object of back-and-forth fighting between France and Great Britain for centuries, which is why most of the island's place names are French even though the island's official language is English.

This is a picture of St. Lucia's iconic Pitons - Gros Piton in the back and Petit Piton in the front - with the town of Soufrière in the foreground. Traveling from the capital of Castries to Soufrière required a lengthy bus ride over winding mountain roads, but the scenery was worth the trip. In Soufrière, we also toured a delightful botanical garden as well as the Caribbean's only drive-in volcanic crater.

Our fifth and final stop was Barbados. Unlike the other islands of volcanic origin we visited, Barbados is a coral island. Therefore, its terrain is gentle and rolling, rather than mountainous, and is heavily cultivated. Barbados also appeared to be the most economically-developed of all the islands we visited.

One of our stops during our bus tour of Barbados was Orchid World, with its impressive gardens full of - you guessed it - orchids. We also made a stop at the Sunbury Plantation House, where we dined on Bajan snacks and drinks.

Barbados is famous for its rum, and Chesterfield Browne is one of the "faces" of Mount Gay Rum. Here he poses for my camera at the distillery's visitor center in the capital city of Bridgetown while he prepares a rum tasting for my group. I did the rum tasting tour with a few Royal Caribbean employees who were on shore leave, which was kind of fun.

One thing that was really cool about the cruise was that, with the exception of St. Maarten, every island we visited was its own independent nation. While there are a lot of similarities between St. Kitts, Antigua, St. Lucia and Barbados - language, currency, a fanatical devotion to cricket, even the Queen as the nominal head of state - each has its own unique culture and characteristics, and it's fun to say that we truly visited a different country every day of our cruise.

After we returned to San Juan, we disembarked from the ship and made our way to a timeshare along the Isla Verde beach near San Juan. We only spent one day at the beach, however; there were just so many other things to see and do in Puerto Rico!


El Yunque is the only tropical rainforest in the US Forest Service system, and is an easy drive from San Juan. This view of the forest was taken from atop the Yokahu Tower within the forest.

The forest has a nice visitors center and many hiking trails, where the lush beauty of El Yunque can be observed up close.


This is the red-painted San Juan Gate, which leads into the walled Spanish colonial city of Old San Juan.


Kirby sits atop a wall overlooking the courtyard of San Felipe del Morro fortress on the northwestern tip of Old San Juan. The Spanish used this fortification to defend San Juan from British and Dutch attacks until 1898, when it was taken over by the US military. During World War II it was used to keep watch for German U-Boats. Today, the fortress is operated by the National Park Service.


A rusty old cannon peers through an embrasure cut into San Felipe del Morro's walls. Behind the parapet is the top of one of the distinctive guard towers, or garitas, that dot the walls of Old San Juan and its fortifications.


A couple of hours to the east of San Juan is the Camuy River Cave Park. The caves were formed by the underground Camuy River. Due to low light levels, the above picture simply does not to justice to the massive Cueva Clara chamber, with its stalactites, stalagmites and other cave features.



Not far from the Camuy Caves is the massive Arecibo Observatory. Although popularly associated with searches for extraterrestrial life (through projects such as the Arecibo Message and its appearance in TV shows such as The X Files and movies such as Contact), much of the research conducted by this radio telescope centers on radio astronomy and atmospheric research. 

Puerto Rico Highway 22 is technically part of the Interstate Highway System, although it is not signed as such. It's designed to interstate standards, with the exception that the highway signs are in Spanish rather than English and are marked in kilometers rather than miles. The speed limits, however, are all marked in miles, which might be confusing. The big yellow vehicle to the left is a "zipper"machine that moves the movable barrier between the inside lanes of the highway during rush hour, so that the peak direction gets an extra lane.

We actually sent a couple of days exploring Old San Juan. The colonial city, which is a UNESCO World Heritage Site as well as on the U.S. National Register of Historic Places, is very picturesque, with colorful colonial buildings and narrow cobblestone streets. Bars, restaurants, art galleries, boutique hotels and jewelry stores are among the businesses found within Old San Juan.

  I took this video from atop Fort San Cristobal, another former Spanish fortification and current Nation Park property on the northeast of Old San Juan.You can see San Felipe del Morro in the distance, as well as Old San Juan, the Puerto Rico Capitol Building, and some of the high rises of modern San Juan.

Puerto Rico was facing a host of crushing economic problems when we visited, and those problems have only gotten worse in the year since we took our trip. The island is straining under a massive $72 billion debt load, the island's economy is shrinking, and it it is hemorrhaging population as Puerto Ricans make their way to the US mainland in search of better jobs and quality of life. The summer we visited the island was also being ravaged by a drought; several restaurants that we visited gave us bottled water to drink because water rationing meant that they had no water service that particular day. (The drought situation seems to be better now.) Furthermore, tourism is the lifeblood of the Puerto Rican economy, and there seemed to be a lot of concern about improved relations with Cuba and the possibility that tourists will begin visiting that island instead of Puerto Rico because it is cheaper. All in all, it's a very sad fate to what is otherwise a very beautiful island.

With all that said, it was a great trip and one that I had been meaning to take for a long time. The week at sea + week at a timeshare combination worked out very well for us (especially since my parents collect timeshares like some people collect stamps and can easily exchange them for places like where we stayed in Isla Verde) and we'll probably do it again on future adventures.

*I do not subscribe to the ridiculous and archaic practice of using feminine pronouns like "she" or "her" when referring to maritime vessels. Cruise ships are inanimate objects that do not possess gender.

Tuesday, September 20, 2016

#6 Houston 40, Cincinnati 16

As it turns out, I was right to be worried about this game. The Cougars struggled through the first three quarters, and when Cincinnati scored a touchdown to take a 12-16 lead early in the fourth quarter, I was really concerned. But the Coogs rallied from that point forward, rattling off 28 unanswered points (including two touchdowns on back-to-back pick-sixes) to secure the road win.

The Good: Greg Ward, Jr completed 24 of 36 passes for 326 yards and a touchdown. He also rushed for 73 yards and two touchdowns; the UH ground attack netted a total of 180 rushing yards. The Cougar defense, meanwhile, held Cincinnati to only 30 total rushing yards, and contributed 16 points to the final score in the form of two pick-sixes and a safety.

The Bad: The Cougars looked sloppy on offense through much of the game. Greg Ward, Jr threw two interceptions, including the one that led to Cincinnati's go-ahead touchdown. Bearcat quarterback Hayden Moore attacked the UH secondary to the tune of 275 passing yards and two touchdowns. UH cornerback Harold Wilson dropped a sure pick-six in the first half that would have turned the tide of the game much earlier had he held on (he made up for it with a pick-six in the fourth).

The Bizarre: This fumble recovery by Cincinnati, late in the first half, led to a Bearcat field goal right before halftime (via SBNation):


What it means: This was probably the Cougars' biggest road test, and they passed. This is not to say that trips to Navy, Memphis or even SMU will be easy; every opponent is going to give the Coogs their best shot from here on out. However, this game was especially tough because the Cougars were playing a road game (in a stadium they haven't won at since 1971), on a short week of rest, against a pretty good Cincinnati team that they only beat by three points at home last year. And they didn't just escape Nippert Stadium with a win; they imposed their will on the Bearcats in the fourth quarter and made a statement.

Next up for the Cougars is a September 24 trip to San Marcos to face the Texas State Bobcats.

Tuesday, September 13, 2016

#6 Houston 42, Lamar 0

The Cougars actually came close to selling this one out: 39,402 tickets were sold, and while there were clearly a lot of no-shows, a good crowd was filling into TDECU Stadium by the middle of the first quarter. That UH sold that many seats for an 11 am game against an FCS opponent is really remarkable, and shows just how far the program has come.

Alas, with about three minutes to go in the first quarter, the game was suspended due to lightning in the area. And although no thunderstorms reached the stadium itself, menacing clouds and frequent bolts of lightning in the surrounding area forced the game to be postponed for three and a half hours.

By the time the game resumed, most of that crowd had gone home. Even Lamar's band had to leave before play resumed (the contract with their charter bus company probably specified a return time).

The Good: With Kyle Postma filling in for Greg Ward, Jr at quarterback and Kevrin Justice and Mulbah Car filling in for Duke Catalon at running back, The Cougars ground out a workmanlike game plan that managed 511 yards total offense. Postma, Justice and Car all had over 100 yards rushing. The Cougar defense, meanwhile, held Lamar to only four first downs for the entire game and never allowed the Cardinals to cross midfield.

The Bad: The Cougars went for it on fourth-and-goal twice but came away with nothing. Kicker Ty Cummings missed two field goals.

The Annoying: NCAA rules require games to be halted whenever lightning strikes within eight miles of the stadium. A thirty-minute clock then begins, but is reset every time there is another strike within the eight mile buffer. With all the storms marauding around the Houston area last Saturday, it took a long time before things cleared to the point that play could resume. I was very close to leaving myself; had the delay lasted much longer, in fact, the game could have been cancelled completely.

What It Means: This was an expected win over an FCS opponent, and Tom Herman and his staff used it to give the backups some reps while giving Greg Ward Jr time to heal his shoulder and Duke Catalon time to heal his foot before Thursday's game against Cincinnati. The playcalling, likewise, was very generic so as not to give Cinci any new scouting material.

But it's a short week for the Coogs, and Thursday's game really scares me. Cincinnati is coming off a convincing win at Purdue; they are the real deal. The Bearcats are also looking to avenge last year's close loss at TDECU. The Cougars have not won at Nippert Stadium since 1971.

From man to whiny sore loser

Last Saturday the Central Michigan Chippewas traveled to Stillwater and upset the #22-ranked Oklahoma State Cowboys on a miraculous final play that shouldn't have even happened. Due to an officiating error, CMU was granted an untimed down at the end of the game, and made the most of it with a ridiculous Hail-Mary-and-lateral play to score a touchdown and win the game, 30-27.

Although it was later determined that the referees made a mistake, the score of the game will stand. OSU head coach Mike Gundy - who, for the record, is a MAN! - isn't happy about it. Gundy claims that the officiating crew was inferior because it was from the non-Power Five Mid-American Conference (where CMU plays), and from now on he won't play any games at home against non-Power Five schools unless he gets to use his own conference's officials.
"In a contract with a Power 5 school, you're going to exchange officials on your one-to-one games. Otherwise, I would not go into a game without Big 12 officials," Gundy said. "We're playing a school that does not want to use our officials, you move on and find another school."

Gundy said he doesn't want to "disrespect" officiating crews that don't operate in Power 5 conferences, but after Saturday's outcome, he said he won't use them in Stillwater again.

"The best ones will be at [the Power 5] level," he said. "When we're playing in these games, we need to use our officials. Or we don't sign a contract."
There are several problems with Gundy's whiny rant.

First, the arrogant assumption that Power Five conference have better officiating crews. Gundy doesn't mention that the officials in the replay booth were (supposedly superior) Big 12 referees, who could have called down to reverse the call in the event of an "egregious error" but failed to do so (both the MAC crew and the Big 12 replay officials have been suspended for two games because of the error).

Second, Gundy's demand that he get to use his own Big 12 officials from now on appears to be a breach of what seems to be standard for contracts between out-of-conference schools (wherein the visiting team gets to bring their conference's officials).

But third and most importantly, Gundy is simply scapegoating the referees in order to overcome his own failures in coaching this game. Yes, the referees made a mistake. But here's the thing, coach: they shouldn't have been in that position to begin with!

The Cowboys were playing at home and were favored by 19.5 points over the Chippewas; this really shouldn't have even been a contest. At one point OSU led by two touchdowns, but they couldn't put Central Michigan away and let them back into the game. CMU actually led at one point in the fourth quarter; in fact, they outgained Oklahoma State in total yardage (even before the last-second score) and led in time of possession.

We see this time and time again in college football: when you let these scrappy, upset-minded teams hang around, weird things can happen. Mike Gundy, of all people, should know this. It's his job as coach to make sure his players are prepared, even for what was supposed to be a "cupcake" game against a lesser opponent. The Oregonian's Ken Goe notes:
...[I]f Gundy's team had played to its reputation, Oklahoma State would have been comfortably in front in the fourth quarter, not frantically trying to protect a three-point lead.

College football games are played by imperfect athletes, coached by imperfect coaches and officiated by imperfect officials.

As David Wharton of writes in the Los Angeles Times, controversial calls happen in college football. So get over it.
Instead of taking responsibility for his own failures as head coach last Saturday,  Mike Gundy is, in effect, issuing a blanket indictment against the competence of every college football referee that happens not to work for a Power Five conference. And that makes Mike Gundy look less like a man, and more like a butt-hurt, sore loser.

(Oh, and by the way: No. 22 Oklahoma State's loss to Central Michigan was just its second non-conference home game loss under Mike Gundy (who is 25-2 overall). The other loss? Yup!

Thursday, September 08, 2016

Starting off right: #15 Houston 33, #3 Oklahoma 23

The Houston Cougars made a statement to the nation by beating the Oklahoma Sooners before a capacity crowd of 71,016 at NRG Stadium last Saturday.

Ward escapes, and Linell Bonner makes an amazing catch
The Good: The Cougar offense wasn't at 100% of its effectiveness in this game, but it still got the job done. Greg Ward Jr was 23 of 40 for 321 yards and two touchdowns, but his accuracy wasn't perfect and he wasn't helped by several drops from his receivers. What's more, the Sooners contained him such that he only had a single net yard rushing the entire game. It didn't matter. Thanks to some amazing catches and 88 yards on 22 carries from new running back Duke Catalon (he also caught a touchdown pass), the Coogs outgained the Sooners and held onto the ball for 35 minutes. Steven Dunbar led all receivers with 7 catches for 125 yards, and tight end Tyler McCloskey caught a touchdown. Aside from a few false start penalties, the only glaring mistake by the offense was a goal-line fumble late in the game.

Sooner RB Samaje Perine meets Cougar safety Garrett Davis
The Better: The defense played havoc with the Sooners. Oklahoma QB Brandon Mayfield had a decent afternoon, completing 24 of 33 passes for 32 yards and two touchdowns, but he also ran into some trouble with the Houston defense. Ed Oliver, the highly-rated true freshman defensive tackle, made things difficult for Mayfield and the Sooner backfield with 7 tackles and two sacks. Oklahoma's heralded running attack of Joe Mixon and Samaje Perine was limited to 71 total yards rushing and one touchdown. The Coogs also forced two Sooner turnovers.

The Best: Brandon Wilson's kick six, which turned the tide of the game and which will go down as one of the biggest single plays in University of Houston football history:


What it Means: With the win, the Coogs are now ranked #6 in the AP Poll and #7 in the Coaches Poll. Houston is now officially a contender for the College Football Playoff. And now that Houston - having beaten top ten teams back-to-back for the first time in program history - has proven that it can hang with the big boys, the pressure is on the Big XII to either add the Coogs to their conference or account for their cowardice.

This was Houston's first win over a #3 team since they beat Texas in 1984. The Houston Press and cfn.com's Pete Fiutak have more reaction, while Bleacher Report hands out grades. Next up for the Coogs is their true home opener on Saturday, against FCS Lamar.

Thursday, September 01, 2016

The long, strange trip

Before the University of Houston Cougars begin what is one of their most anticipated football seasons in program history, I just want to take a moment to reflect on the journey that all of us - the school, the program, the coaches and players who have come and gone, the students, the fans and the alumni - have taken to get here.

As I mentioned in my season preview, the last time the Cougars were ranked in the preseason was August of 1991, when they were #12 (they finished the 1990 season with a 10-1 record and a #10 ranking; this was the pinnacle of the Run and Shoot era).

As I also mentioned, the 1991 season was disastrous for the Coogs. So many of the seasons since then have been pretty tough for the program and its faithful. There were times when I wasn't sure UH football would even survive.

I was a freshman when Miami clobbered Houston, 40-10, in a highly-anticipated Thursday night ESPN game, and burst the Run and Shoot bubble. I suffered through back-to-back 4-7 seasons under John Jenkins and, following that, the abyss of suck that was the Kim Helton era. Between the '93, '94 and '95 seasons, Houston won a total of four games.

I thought things were trending upward after the 1996 season - my final semester at UH - when the Cougars won the inaugural Conference USA championship. That was a fun year: the Coogs almost upset LSU in Baton Rouge, won a wild overtime game against ranked Southern Miss, and went to the Liberty Bowl. I still remember hanging out with all the UH fans on Beale Street in Memphis.

Alas, Kim Helton followed that year up with back-to-back 3-8 seasons, then a fool's gold 7-4 season wherein the team beat nobody with a winning record and didn't make it to a bowl, and then got fired because the athletics director at the time, Chet Gladchuk, thought he had landed Bob Pruett, the successful head coach from Marshall, to take over the program.

Except Pruett backed out, and Gladchuk had to save face by signing Wyoming head coach Dana Dimel.

I met Dana Dimel, who is now an assistant coach at Kansas State, a couple of times while he was at UH. I liked him as a person and I appreciate him for trying to re-open local recruiting connections that Helton had neglected. But under him, the program reached its nadir. There was the announced attendance of 3,006 for a home game against Louisville to end the 2000 season. There was the "Bleachergate" embarrassment of the 2001 season, wherein temporary bleachers put up to accommodate Texas fans for a game against the Longhorns were declared unsafe. Neiher of those events were Dimel's fault, but 2001's 0-11 season - the first winless season in program history - was all on him.

I drove down from Denton, where I lived and worked at the time, to watch all those games at Robertson in 2000 and 2001. I even went to the Army game in West Point, New York in 2001. (While I was up there, I went to Lower Manhattan to discover the ruins of the world Trade Center still smouldering; that was eerie.) I had moved back to Houston in time to witness 2002's 5-7 campaign, which, although better than 2001's O-fer season, still couldn't save Dimel's job.

Those were the days when the east side of Robertson was almost completely empty. There was the band and a (very) small student section, but that was it. I remember thinking that the 19,569 we had for a game against Louisiana-Lafayette in 2002 was a "great!" crowd. That was also the season when we all had to enter the stadium multiple times using different tickets so we wouldn't fall below the NCAA's minimum attendance requirements.

Sure, in those days it was nice to be able to pull up right next to Robertson Stadium and tailgate; you didn't need a high-dollar Cougar Pride membership to do so. But as far as the program was concerned, it was irrelevant and on life support. The 2002 season was Houston's tenth losing season out of the last twelve.

Those were, indeed, the days when I really feared that the UH football program had no future. 

Then Art Briles was hired as head coach. Say what you will about him - the abrupt way he left Houston for Baylor, the scandals that eventually forced him out of Baylor - but while he was at Houston he made something out of nothing. Sure, his teams were a hot mess of turnovers, penalties and special teams mistakes, but at least he made the program fun to watch again. He had four out of five winning seasons while he was here, he led the Coogs to their second Conference USA championship, and attendance began to trend upward while he was here.

Kevin Sumlin, on the other hand (and as Texas A&M is currently discovering), was nothing but smoke and mirrors. Sure, he had some pretty big wins while he was here - beating a top-five Oklahoma State in Stillwater, that barn-burner of a game against Texas Tech, that miracle win at Tulsa, the program's first bowl win in three decades against Air Force - but his success was pretty much based entirely upon the athleticism of a quarterback he didn't even recruit. When Keenum went down after that disaster of a game in the Rose Bowl in 2010, he had nothing.

And then 2011. Keenum getting a sixth year. Beating UCLA at Robertson. That amazing comeback at LA Tech. The Cougars, that undefeated juggernaut, going into the CUSA Championship. Just beat Southern Miss, and the BCS-busting Houston Cougars get to go to the Sugar Bowl!

Yeah, we all know how that turned out.

When it was over, I thought UH football had gone as far as it could go. Sure, we'd be a "competitive mid-major" from time to time, a novelty program, like Fresno or Akron or Western Kentucky, that ESPN will mention right before a commercial break. But I had this feeling in the back on my mind that the 2011 Conference USA Championship Game was "our moment" and that we blew it.

And then Tony Levine came along. And he brought with him losses to Texas State, UTSA and Tulane. He only served to confirm that feeling in my mind that UH was "done." Building the new stadium was nice, but so what? I wouldn't admit it to anyone at the time, but I remember thinking to myself after that Homecoming loss to Tulane that I might as well walk away, that Houston Cougar football's best days were forever in the past.

But then Tony Levine was fired, and Tom Herman was hired, and now we're here.

2015 ACC Conference champions. Peach Bowl champions. Number 8 in the final 2015 AP and Coaches polls.

And now, today, opening the season ranked #15 in the AP poll and #13 in the coaches poll, with a huge, nationally-televised showdown against #3 Oklahoma on Saturday that ESPN is hyping, and some national media outlets actually suggesting that Houston could win the national championship.

I doubt that will happen. But looking back to those dark days of 2001, or even after that homecoming loss to Tulane in 2014, would I have believed where University of Houston football is right now?

Yes, the Oklahoma Sooners are a legitimate national championship contender. Sooner QB Baker Mayfield is salivating at his chance to pick apart Houston's graduation-depleted secondary. OU defenders are going to have their ears pinned back as they aim for Greg Ward, Jr. Yes, Saturday's game could get ugly.

But right now, I don't care.

It's been a long, strange trip to get here. And while today does not represent the destination for University of Houston football - the journey will continue, regardless of what happens Saturday - I'm going to savor the fact that the Coogs have made it this far.

Countries I've visited, 2016 edition

I still owe this blog a recap of my fantastic trip to the Alps earlier this summer. I don't know when or if I'll ever get around to creating that, but I can at least update the list (which I started last year) of countries I've visited. Besides spending several days in Germany and Austria for the first time in 14 years, this summer I also finally stepped into two countries I have always wanted to visit: Italy and Switzerland. Both of these were short, cross-the-border visits - a matter of a few hours apiece - and I definitely want to go back and explore both countries further. But it's nice to be able to say I've finally been there. I can now say that I've actually eaten a pizza in Italy.

The country I think I found most intriguing, however, was right across the border from Italy: Slovenia is breathtakingly beautiful and the people there (at least, the ones I interacted with) were very friendly. Again, it was a visit of only a few hours, and we ultimately decided not to make a second trip into the country to see the capital of Ljubljana (not enough time!), but right now Slovenia is at the very top of my "GO BACK!" list.

Anyway, below is an updated list of countries I've visited and the years I've visited them, with the most recent visits denoted in red. If I didn't stay overnight in a country - e.g. a order crossing, an airport stopover where I left the terminal, or a cruise port of call - the year I visited is italicized. Nations with an asterisk (*) next to them are among the world's 25 smallest countries, of which is my life's goal to visit all of them before I die. Having spent the night in the picturesque (and ridiculously expensive) Principality of Liechtenstein during this most recent trip, I'm now 20% of the way there.

Antigua and Barbuda*: 
2015
Austria: 
2002, 2016
Barbados*:  
2015
Belize:  
2006
Canada:
1974, 1980, 1982
Czech Republic:
2002
Ecuador: 
1988, 1989, 1990, 1993, 2001
Germany: 
2002, 2016
Ireland:
1985
Italy:
2016
Japan: 
2005
Liechtenstein*:
2016
Mexico: 
1979, 1983, 1986, 1987, 1989, 1995, 1997, 1998, 1999, 2000, 2003, 2004, 2005, 2006, 2007

The Kingdom of the Netherlands:
The Netherlands
2002, 2006
Aruba
2014
 St. Maarten:  
2015
St. Kitts and Nevis*:  
2015
St. Lucia*:  
2015
Slovenia:
2016
Switzerland:
2016
United Arab Emirates: 
2006, 2008, 2012


The United Kingdom:
England:
1985
Scotland:
1985
 Wales:
1985

This past summer's travels get me up to 20 out of 206 sovereign (or de-facto sovereign) nations, or 9.7% percent. Still not great, but I'm making progress.

(Flag source: World Flag Database)